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Charter boom – no end in sight

So far, ethical and financial abuses haven't deterred the District from creating more charters.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In 13 short years, the charter school movement in Philadelphia has grown from nothing to a network with 67 schools and more than 36,000 students, financed by $400 million in taxpayer dollars.

Counted together, they would be the second largest school district in Pennsylvania.

But today, the work of many dedicated educators who eagerly seized the opportunity to create successful learning communities has been nearly overshadowed by revelations about profiteering, excessive CEO salaries, mismanagement, and nepotism at several charters.

Some who witnessed the charter approval process, especially in the early years, now tie the current troubles to Distict officials who ignored warning signs and approved deficient proposals in the rush to create as many schools as possible. Officials who were either pressured politically or committed to school choice ideology then looked the other way when evidence of questionable financial and ethical practices began to surface.

“We gave up too many charters too fast in the beginning,” said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer. “We’re paying for that now.”

But neither this checkered history nor uneven academic results have slowed the momentum for creating more charter schools here and around the country. Both Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the Obama administration are aggressively pursuing charter expansion, primarily through the conversion of failing public schools, as a centerpiece of their education reform policy.

Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative could ultimately result in the conversion of dozens of city schools to charters under a sweeping “turnaround” policy promoted by the federal Department of Education; it starts with seven in the fall.

Last fall, six new charters opened, and the SRC is scheduled to vote on several expansion requests in June.

People of varying political stripes – free-market Republicans, African-American Democrats, progressive and traditional educators alike – have coalesced around charter schools as the best way to improve historically dismal education opportunities for poor children of color. The charter movement brings together hedge-fund financiers dedicated to defeating unions and big government with inner-city families who see these schools of choice as a lifeline for their children.

Groups with community roots like ASPIRA and Congreso de Latinos Unidos operate charter schools alongside organizations like Mastery, whose founder Scott Gordon is a former businessman.

“Charters were supposed to do two things,” said Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and one of the city’s staunchest charter advocates. “Create quality options and choices for families in low-income communities, and change the face of how public education was going to be delivered for all students.

“Has it done those things? Absolutely.”

If there’s criminality, Matlock-Turner said, that’s what the courts are for, but she questions any rush to impose more reporting requirements on charter schools.

Others, like Shorr, are less certain.

“There are enough good charter operators in Philadelphia that if they can continue to do a good job, and be public about their academic gains and challenges, the movement can stay alive and be more productive in the future than in the past,” she said. “But it depends on if people are going to be transparent and accountable.”

Charters “are reframing how we think about public education,” said Benjamin Rayer, who runs the District’s charter school office and is a former official of Mastery Charter Schools, which will soon operate seven schools in the city, including six that are converted District schools.

Measuring charters’ success

Still, whether charters have lived up to their academic promise – and even how to measure their impact – is a matter of heated debate. As a group, according to a 2008 report by Research for Action, RAND, and Mathematica, Inc., students’ average gains when attending Philadelphia charters were statistically indistinguishable from their gains in public schools.

Yet proponents say charters in Philadelphia have done better than District schools at meeting federal targets for adequate yearly progress (AYP), even when factoring in that charters on average are smaller and have fewer performance targets to meet.

No equivalent information between public schools and charter schools has been tracked for measures like dropout, attrition, and college-going rates. Concerns persist about charter schools dumping challenging students (see The ultimate challenge).

Some successes do stand out, such as the first graduating class at Mastery Thomas in South Philadelphia, which Mastery converted from a middle to a middle-high school. Gordon reports that for this year’s graduating seniors, 80 of 87 are registered for college in the fall, two-thirds in four-year schools.

Overall, thousands more families enter lotteries to enroll in charters than can be accommodated.

Charter schools in Philadelphia, Rayer noted, offer a range of models, from Afrocentric education to dual-language immersion. One charter is in the woods in upper Roxborough where students study nature, another in Chinatown, alongside food warehouses. “Schools are doing widely different things, and they are getting results,” he said.

Some worry about exacerbating race and class divisions already well pronounced in the city. Green Woods, the Roxborough charter, is 83 percent White in a city where the District schools are more than 80 percent African American and Latino. About half of the city’s charters are 90 percent or more African American.

But the relative freedom to adopt a mission, hire like-minded staff, and create community around a shared purpose increases a charter’s chance of being successful, said Stacey L. Cruise, principal of First Philadelphia Charter School for Literacy, housed in a gleaming building on an otherwise frayed street in Bridesburg.

First Philadelphia’s student body is 37 percent African American, 30 percent White, 20 percent Latino, 3 percent Asian, and 9 percent “multicultural,” with nine in ten from low-income families. Its students put on plays, perform in an orchestra, can study several languages, and visit foreign countries.

“You find people who agree with what you are trying to do and are interested in working in an environment like this,” she said. “It’s easier to set a climate and have unity throughout the school.”

Increased freedom, however, cuts both ways, observed Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA, whose child attends a charter school.

“The thinking was that if we unfettered schools [from bureaucratic requirements], you would get a chance to see what happens. Here, we got a chance to see both what can happen when it’s done well and what happens when it’s done poorly.”

Eager to approve

The “poorly” part, said former school board member Helen Cunningham, can be traced back to the beginning.

Both the old Board of Education and, later, the School Reform Commission, appointed review panels to evaluate charter applications, but then sometimes ignored their recommendations, Cunningham and others said.

“I was on the first charter review panel in 1998,” said Cunningham, who was later appointed to the Board of Education by Mayors Street and Rendell. “We had 25 applicants. We took our task seriously; we thought three charters were really ready on all fronts. The school board approved 11.”

Asked why, she cited political pressure and reluctance on the part of school board members to be seen as anti-charter.

“People got charters who never should have had them,” said Cunningham, who is the executive director of the Samuel L. Fels Fund – and as such, has given grants to some charter operators.

But some of those awarded charters at the outset “didn’t have a good educational plan, they didn’t have a good governance structure, they didn’t have appropriate financial checks.

“People went into this for all kinds of reasons,” she said. “You never could distinguish who was in it for what reason.”

Another person long active in Philadelphia education circles described serving on the review panel in 1999. “Out of 25 applications, the [panel] said four should get charters,” this person said. “They gave out 12 that year.” She said some charters now under investigation were approved against the better judgment of evaluators.

In 1999, 12 charters were given the OK, and 10 more in 2000.

In 2001, the school board approved just three of 25 applications, which caused an outcry from the charter community.

That same year, it moved to close one of the first charters, World Communications, which had low test scores and too many uncertified teachers. More than 100 people packed a school board hearing to protest, dismissing comparative District data about the school’s low academic standing. Cunningham, then on the school board, remembers being stunned, but ultimately, she and the board voted to keep it open.

“The whole thing turned on the fact that the parents felt their children were safe in that charter, and they couldn’t really focus on the educational quality of the institution,” she said. “If you think your child is going to be shot, that’s not a small thing.”

Today, World Communications has boosted proficiency rates to 61 percent in reading and 58 percent in math.

After the state’s 2002 installation of the School Reform Commission, charter approvals speeded up once more. The Republican-appointed majority on the SRC was avidly pro-charter.

Looking the other way

When District officials began unearthing evidence of conflicts of interest and people making money off charter schools, pressure mounted to look the other way, several sources said – especially when an early incident involved the New Foundations Charter School, founded by the wife of John Perzel, then the Speaker of the House. Perzel controlled the purse strings for the schools in Harrisburg and was then funneling millions to the District for a privatized network of discipline schools.

“They would as part of the renewal process start to audit charters,” said one former District official who did not want to be quoted by name. “They found money misspent, conflicts of interest on the board, transactions where other nonprofits would benefit. People knew [of the problems] and they pushed and advocated, and it fell on deaf ears.”

In 2005, the District adopted a policy – written under contract by staunch charter supporter and former state legislator Bob O’Donnell – that banned audits during renewals unless problems were suspected and said that District regulators could not visit charter schools more than twice a year.

Still, charter operators continued to chafe at what they considered burdensome, repetitive, and inconsistent requests from the District’s bare-bones charter school office. Two successive charter school task forces were formed to iron out issues. A new SRC charter policy, approved in 2007, said charter applications would be considered in the context of the overall goals of the District, including where children were underserved and where schools were overcrowded.

The breadth of the problems did not burst into public view until 2008, when parents from Philadelphia Academy Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia detailed publicly to the SRC their suspicions about how its founder, Brien Gardiner, was moving around funds and how they were blocked in efforts to get information. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Martha Woodall followed up, and before long was writing regularly about an ever-widening investigation of charter school ethics and financial practices.

Two schools are closed

That year, the SRC for the first time closed two charters, Germantown Settlement and Renaissance, citing financial mismanagement and dismal academics. And it has slowed its process for charter approvals and delayed rulings on expansion requests, which does not sit well with many charter proponents.

This April City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report on 13 schools, finding potential irregularities in all of them. Federal investigators have reportedly sought records from as many as 18 schools, and the District’s own inspector general is also conducting a probe.

In the wake of all this, the District has beefed up its charter school office. “Our efforts to monitor charter schools are on the rise,” Rayer said.

Legislation has cleared the Senate Education Committee that would create a state Office of Charter Schools, which Butkovitz says is a good idea.

“There are a lot of things that restrain the School District from being the most aggressive monitor,” Butkovitz said. “They are in the middle of a crossfire over whether they are being fair to charter schools. And there is so much legislative support for charter schools that the District runs the risk of antagonizing significant legislative powers if they’re seen as being overly aggressive.”

Butkovitz, who supports charters as an educational improvement strategy, says that getting a handle on the abuses is crucial.

“If charter schools are arguing that more money invested in charter schools would be better for more kids, the other side of the coin is that the money has to go to what’s actually enriching and improving opportunities for children,” he said. “It shouldn’t be going to waste and profit-making that is unreasonable or unjustified.”

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